Jaylen Johnson sat on the turf, watching in a huddled mass as Jeff Hafley cherry-picked just one of the dozens of talented high school players sitting in front of him to stand up and demonstrate a defensive back drill at one of Ohio State’s one-day position camps this summer.
Instead of any number of the juniors or seniors in the crowd that June 15 afternoon, Hafley chose a 15-year-old that had caught the coach’s eye just two days prior at an overnight camp hosted by the Buckeyes.
And as this sophomore-to-be showed his older veteran peers the proper cornerback footwork, gliding his cleats smoothly across the turf and properly keeping his hips low while swiveling side-to-side, Johnson wasn’t paying attention to the exhibition. He was too busy trying to figure out who the hell this kid was.
“He was doing some warmup drills before, and I knew I recognized that face,” Johnson told Eleven Warriors. “So after I heard Coach Hafley keep saying his name, I’m like, ‘I know this kid from somewhere.’
“So I walked up to him after the drill and was like, ‘Do you know me?’ He looked at me and was like, ‘Yeah, Jaylen.’ I told him, ‘Yeah I know you too, but I can’t think of your name.’”
“‘I’m C.J., from Dayton. What’s up?’” was the response.
The light instantly clicked for Johnson ... Oh, C.J. Hicks!
The two had played against each other in little league football years ago in the Cincinnati and Dayton area, from ages 7 to 11, but had since lost contact with each other, with Johnson eventually landing at Cincinnati’s La Salle High School and Hicks going to Alter High School near Dayton.
“I didn’t know what school he went to because all my other Dayton-playing friends went to Dunbar, or they didn’t play,” Johnson said. “I knew Branden McDonald went to Alter because my freshman year they played, and I went to go see the game. But I didn’t know C.J. played for Alter.”
So this was the perfect time for a reunion.
They both had already made plans to go to a University of Cincinnati camp the following week, so they met up there. That’s where they exchanged contact information, and the two have remained tight ever since.
“That’s my boy,” Johnson said.
OK, so two Ohio kids forming a friendship after playing together in little league isn’t exactly big recruiting news. Cincinnati and Dayton kids have a fairly tight circle, as Hicks, Johnson, Corey Kiner and Miyan Williams are all either friends, acquaintances or at least have all talked frequently.
But Hicks and Johnson are joined at the hip by more than just a friendship. Each of them is also an incredibly intriguing prospect for the Buckeyes in terms of where they would play in Hafley and Greg Mattison’s defense.
Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound three-star junior, is most likely going to stay at safety in college, but there’s a chance he could be the next in line to play bullet, depending on the evolution of that position in this Ohio State defense and if the staff chooses to use it more going forward.
Johnson says the Buckeyes coaches – specifically Al Washington – have spoken with him about potentially turning him into a linebacker or bullet if he gets bigger.
“It’s really interesting. Not gonna lie to you,” Johnson said of a potential move to a hybrid or linebacker position, noting he hasn’t kept up with Ohio State’s usage of the bullet. “They want me to play safety, but if my body grows into a bullet, I can do that.”
Hicks' positional future is much less clear than Johnson’s. The 2022 target has an extra year to grow from his already big 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame, a frame that is one of the reasons Ohio’s top-ranked player in his class – who plays safety, linebacker, wide receiver and running back for Alter – is listed as a five-star recruit and the third-ranked sophomore athlete in the nation.
It’s at defensive back where he shines most, however, notably at this summer’s Mercer Elite Camp in Georgia. He had an outstanding camp there, breaking out in front of more than 45 Division I college programs by:
- Running a 4.5 in the 40.
- Using his impressive combination of size, height, speed and fluid hip movement to lock down a four-star receiver from Florida and hold him without a catch.
- Bullying the other receivers his age to the point he was moved from the freshman/sophomore group into the junior/senior pack, where he again shined by snagging an interception and not allowing a catch.
He left that camp with at least six more offers to add to his total, and Hafley soon took even more recognition of Hicks.
“(Hafley) said he loves the way I play,” Hicks said. “That’s the coach that said he wanted to offer me at the end of the camp, but Coach (Ryan) Day wanted to wait and see how I do this year.
“They want me to play outside linebacker or safety. That’s what I’m playing here. Difference here is that here, if they have a dominant receiver, Alter has me go up against him. ... I like playing strong safety the most because I just like to ball hawk and blow stuff up.”
But despite the combination of being a hard hitter, great open-field tackler, being strong in coverage and possessing good field recognition/vision, Hicks still does not yet have an offer from Ohio State.
That’s not surprising or big news. The Buckeyes are almost always patient with offers when it comes to offering in-state prospects. Johnson, after all, didn’t get his offer until that same June 15 camp both he and Hicks attended.
Johnson, whose offers began to roll in after the Buckeyes’ came, says he is now waiting to commit until July 29, and even when Hicks is offered by Ohio State – it truly does look and feel like it’s a matter of “when” not “if” – he says he is going to wait to make his college decision until after his junior season.
No matter the timeline, wherever one ends up committing, the other is likely going to be one of the first to know.
“At the end of the game, he hugged every single Ohio State coach. You don’t really see that, especially after they transfer." – C.J. Hicks on how Ohio State's coaches treated his cousin, L'Christian “BLUE” Smith, who transferred to Cincinnati
The two Buckeyes targets will text each other updates about the season, keep one another posted on how their recruitment is going and even take unofficial visits together – which could mean both going to visit LSU for a game soon. But earlier this year it meant a visit for the Cincinnati-Ohio State game, where each came away with strong thoughts of Day’s program and Ohio Stadium.
Johnson has visited several schools to see their gameday atmosphere such as Penn State, Purdue, Cincinnati and Kentucky. The environments in Cincinnati and Lexington left an impression on him, but neither were the same as Columbus.
“The atmosphere and the fans there are outrageous,” Johnson said. “Win, lose or draw, they’re always fighting for you, but there’s nothing like an Ohio State crowd. They’re just different. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Hicks, who told Eleven Warriors he will be visiting this weekend for Ohio State's game against Wisconsin, was also left impressed by the crowd, which he said brought forth “an amazing atmosphere” for the first-ever college football game he had witnessed in-person. He was able to meet with Day, speak with Kevin Wilson – the coach most involved with his recruitment – and his cousin Robert Landers.
But something perhaps more important caught his attention and hit home with him.
Another cousin, L’Christian “Blue” Smith, was a four-star receiver from Huber Heights who signed with the Buckeyes and redshirted as a freshman. After one season, though, Smith transferred to Cincinnati and was granted immediate eligibility.
Smith still has good relationships with the Buckeye coaches, though, and Hicks couldn’t help but notice.
“At the end of the game, he hugged every single Ohio State coach,” Hicks said. “You don’t really see that, especially after they transfer.
“It shows that they still care. Even if you transfer like he did, or if you graduate, they’re still gonna keep in touch. Or if you need anything, they’ll help you. … He said he’s still in contact with the coaches, which is a good sign because even though he left, they still have love for him.”
Only time will tell if witnessing that sort of interaction for Hicks, the strong relationships Johnson has with the Ohio State staff or their own strong bond will get either of them to Columbus ... or both.
Mum’s the word until then.
“We might go to the same place,” Hicks said with a smirk. “I don’t know.”